If you want to know the answers to these questions and learn a little about the Cesar Chavez-led grape boycott of the late 1960s set to music, make your way to the Central Square Theater in the People's Republic of Cambridge for The Nora Theatre Company's world premiere production of Silver Spoon. A collaboration between Cambridge playwright Amy Merrill and folk singer/composer/lyricist Si Kahn, with a hefty dose of involvement from Nora's artistic director Mary C. Huntington, the show has been in development for about six years.
The Nora's associate director Daniel Gidron directs the cast of four, featuring Kara Manson as Polly, Edward T. Joy as Dan, Peter Edmund Haydu as Polly's grandfather Freddy Bullock, and Rena Baskin as Dan's mom Marilyn Horowitz, the latter two having been involved with the development of the piece since 2007. Their comfort with the material is evident, as is the emotional connection between Manson and Joy as the young lovers. The family ties between mother and son, and grandfather and granddaughter, feel genuine as well, and the pairing of veteran Boston actors with a couple of fresh faces results in a cohesive, energetic ensemble.
The book of Silver Spoon has several problems, chief among them that it spreads itself too thin trying to address conflicts of class, politics, personal convictions and the generational divide. With the exception of Polly, the characters are stereotypes that are made more interesting by the sheer spirit of the actors playing them. The fact that Marilyn is a dedicated union supporter and member of the party doesn't stop her from behaving like a "typical Jewish mother," harping on her son about dating a gentile and pressuring them both to give her grandchildren. It seems like a tired ploy to get laughs and this strong woman deserves better. Freddy is portrayed as an inhumane capitalist and Dan strives to be the working man's hero, so long as he doesn't have to risk too much.
At this juncture, the music is the strength of Silver Spoon, although with ten songs in each of the two acts, it could stand to drop a few. There are places in the script where a character bursts into song because the dialogue hits a wall bearing a sign that says "cue song," for lack of anything else to do. Sometimes one song has barely ended before the next one begins. Considering that the hour-long first act felt much longer, I'd look for the delete key in those pages.
The songs that best do what is expected of songs in a musical, i.e., develop character or move the story forward, include "We Will Hold the Line," Dan's rallying cry and his Les Mis moment; "Freedom Being Born," in which Polly outs herself as a tried and true liberal; and "The Memo," Polly's passionate "Aha!" diatribe. A couple of the musical numbers are great anthems ("Across the Wide East River," "Washington Square"), the kind of thing you might hear on WUMB-FM, and could stand alone outside of the framework of the play. Unfortunately, there are also a handful of songs that are derivative and highly reminiscent of other shows, A Man of No Importance and Rags coming to mind.
With arrangements and orchestrations by multiple Tony Award-nominee Larry Hochman, and Musical Director/pianist/Berklee grad Rodney Allan Bush conducting, Kahn's tunes are beautifully realized by Kayla Glovinski on reeds, Nicole Parks on violin and Camilo Gómez on guitars. Joy is the strongest singer in the cast and he brings, er, joy every time he opens his mouth, be it solo or in a duet. The other three voices are uneven; some of the songs challenge their ranges and lyrics get lost in the reedy upper registers of the women and Haydu's lower notes.
It is curious that this musical contains no dancing. As a matter of fact, the actors are often seated when they deliver their songs, slowing the action and making some moments feel stagnant. As it is, fading to black for numerous scene changes interrupts the flow; perhaps that could be mitigated by having John Malinowski light only the appropriate segments of the stage instead of having the crew constantly rotating set pieces to indicate different locales. Eric Levenson's scenic design employs stylized architectural renderings of skyscrapers to evoke New York City, and creates a suitably cramped and dingy space for the Horowitz apartment. Freddy's office features his enormous portrait as the focal point, while Polly's place consists of a bed and an iconic poster stating "War is not healthy for children and other living things." Not terribly Park Avenue!
Gail Astrid Buckley does a good job of dressing Polly to differentiate between her two worlds and making Freddy look like a master of the universe in his nicely tailored three-piece suit. Dan wears t-shirts, jeans, and a de rigueur olive green Army jacket, perfect for the picket line, while Marilyn's outfits (remember that she's a Communist) are anything but fashionable.
In Silver Spoon, Merrill has mined a rich vein for her story and wisely partnered with Kahn, whose own 45-year history as a civil rights, labor and community organizer would be fodder for a stimulating musical. They have successfully created a structure and plot that work, but their challenge now is to narrow the scope while allowing the characters to develop more realistically. I like the bones of Merrill's story and the folkie flavor of Kahn's musical numbers. Here's hoping they figure out how to strike gold.
Silver Spoon Performances through June 19, 2011 at The Nora Theatre Company, Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.centralsquaretheater.org. Book by Amy Merrill, Music & Lyrics by Si Kahn, Directed by Daniel Gidron, Music Direction by Rodney Allan Bush, Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations by Larry Hochman; Scenic Design, Eric Levenson; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Properties Coordination, Cynthia T. Davis; Stage Manager, Tori Woodhouse; Assistant Stage Manager, Paul Trinh
CAST: Kara Manson, Edward T. Joy, Rena Baskin, Peter Edmund Haydu